In an interesting interview published in the current issue of Newsweek, Senator Joe Biden responds to a question about possible impeachment actions against major actors in the Bush Administration with an alternative proposal:
Newsweek: You once called Slobodan Milosevic a war criminal to his face. You also told Dick Cheney that, were he not a constitutional officer, the president should fire him. So when it comes to the mistakes made in Iraq, why should impeachment of President Bush be off the table?
Biden: It shouldn’t be. But impeachment like everything else is a matter of priorities and responsibility. In order to move on impeachment now, we would be put in a position at a very, very delicate time in our nation’s history, of having necessarily to take our eye off the ball on a host of other things that will have longer-lasting impact on the security of this country. As a practical matter, it sucks all the oxygen out of the air. We would effectively be paralyzed for the next six months or longer . . . The alternative, and it’s taken me time to think through, I think we should be acquiring and accumulating all the data that is appropriate for possibly bringing criminal charges against members of this administration at a later date.
These points are not mutually exclusive, and Biden’s observation rests on an important point. He’s right that an impeachment process would bring the entire legislative process to close to a standstill. It’s also the case that impeachment and conviction works a removal from office, nothing more than that. The time remaining in the hands of these officeholders is already short.
Biden is certainly thinking about the longer term. What does it mean to have senior government officers who commit a series of high crimes and get away with it? That all future officeholders will have the same right to conduct their affairs above the law? That would make this country into much less of a democracy that the Founding Fathers gave us in 1789. A subsequent prosecution is a proper approach. And today, it’s vitally important that documentation of the criminal acts which have been committed be safely stored away so it can be used in future prosecutions: that includes evidence of the formulation of torture policy; the systematic evasion of the FISA statute; the use of the criminal justice system as a tool for political persecution.
These are all extremely serious crimes, and the perpetrators need to be called to account. Since Alberto Gonzales is a kingpin in this scheme, there is no chance that he will lead the effort. The job would have to await the arrival of a successor who is prepared to take his oath seriously and uphold the law.
Biden’s option is a serious approach, and one to be considered whether impeachment efforts proceed or not.